There’s a lot of fun things to enjoy in the world of Disney, but their attitude towards rights isn’t one of them. As reported recently, Disney has contacted all of their employees with a (polite) plea for them to pour funds into the Disney PAC — Political Action Committee — to fuel the battles the company wants to win over copyright.
Copyright was never designed to be perpetual. And in the digital age, is becoming more and more restrictive. Here’s just one example; channel creators are besieged from all sides on Youtube by rival channels who file copyright claims. Youtube’s system, currently, handles all of this automatically. Because having actual people review the complaints costs money, and Google isn’t interested. To be fair to Google, something like 400 hours of video gets uploaded each hour of the day, every week, every month, all year, year after year. But the Youtube system shifts the monetization of a video that gets a complaint filed against it to the complainer, and adds a ‘strike’ to the target of the complaint.
Specifically, if you’re running a channel, and someone files a complaint, you immediately lose all incoming revenue for that video. That revenue is redirected, automatically, to the person or entity that filed the complaint. And that the complaint exists is one of three strikes on your account. Receive three strikes … three complaints … and your channel is closed down. Even if the target files a counter complaint, the system still stacks against them and assumes they’re in the wrong.
Brands take a long time to build unless you’re very, very, very lucky. But more and more abuses of the system are being reported on Youtube. Channel creators who claim to ‘own’ things like “reaction videos” — that is, a video recording someone reacting to something — have filed strikes against lots of other channels. That’s just one example; there are many equally stupid. And even channel owners who are completely and one-hundred percent original have been swept up in this bullshit.
Devin Graham is a talented videographer and photographer. He got his start organizing and filming/photographing his friends — and later strangers who responded to his calls for volunteers — doing photogenic things. Most of them are extreme sports and extreme sports activities in beautiful natural locales. He literally built his resume doing this, uploading the work to his Youtube channel, and for several years now has been a professional videographer who gets paid by major companies to travel the world producing video and pictures. None of his work is derivative; he doesn’t even appropriate music for his use, all of the soundtracks he utilizes are properly licensed.
Yet Devin got hit with a strike by a rival Youtube channel operator who claimed to completely own calling something “Awesome.” I’m not making that up. Not even a little. Read about it. The other channel said their channel was built around the “Awesome” brand, and anyone else using that word was infringing. Devin’s channel is a very popular one, which receives millions of hits per video. The money he gets for each one from Youtube isn’t inconsequential. But this other asshat company was able, with less than a minute or two of filing out a form, blacklist a specific video and remove that revenue from Devin. And if they’d filed two more, Devin would lose his channel. All automatically.
All of that is just one example. Disney has a long history of being equally big asshats over copyright. They do license some things, like Mary Poppins; but others they appropriate from the public domain. The same public domain they want none of their own work to ever enter. The last time the United States extended the copyright term, it was called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act by some senators and representatives. That act extended Mickey Mouse’s copyright to 95 years, and we’re currently at 88 of those. Disney has seven years to pour money into the pockets of Congress to add as much more time to it as they can.
It’s bullshit. The concept of perpetual copyright, first of all. Second, the blatant hypocrisy of their position. And third, the gall they have to request — however politely — their employees give up a portion of their own wages to support the effort.
Copyright is designed to exist for a time, and then go away. And that time was designed to not be prohibitively long. It came into being because people were stealing works — mostly books at the time — and printing them for sale without any recompense to the creators. That’s why it’s called copyright; it’s the right to copy. When someone wrote a book, the reasoning was they deserved to have a pivotal fiscal interest in any rewards from that work. People copying and selling pirate books prevented this, and thus copyright was born.
But 95 years was never on the table until corporations like Disney got involved. They want it to never die. In Disney’s vision, they pay someone to create something, and then Disney owns it forever. Literally forever. Your grandchildren’s grandchildren would still only get to see Mickey Mouse or Goofy stories that Disney produces. It’s completely bullshit. The whole point of the system wasn’t to lock things away forever; it was to provide a period of exclusive exploitation. Which then ended after a few decades, and allowed everyone else to add it to the common pool of things they could manipulate, derive from, and transform. Perpetual copyright destroys this commonality of culture.
An example of the bullshit? The Anne Frank estate, in the not too un-recent past, tried to argue that Anne’s father was a co-writer of the famous diary. Why did they want to take this position? Well, because Papa Frank outlived his daughter by several decades. And if he qualifies as a co-writer, that would automatically add a lot of time to the clock before the diary enters the public domain. Another one? Over in England, the Arthur Conan Doyle estate has been trying to argue that Sherlock Holmes is under protection until the copyright on the last published work expires; that is, the character and all his trappings — his entire world — is protected until the life plus 95 years of the last story Doyle ever wrote.
If I create something, current law gives me my life to exploit it. I personally think it maybe should be less than that, but okay; let’s say life of creator. I’ll even go a few extra years, to allow for the estate’s legal crap to get sorted out. But life plus ninety five years, as it currently stands, gives my great-grandchildren the opportunity to still be sitting on the cash cow. Whether that cow is thin or fat is beside the point; it’s work they didn’t create, but still control.
The intent of copyright, aside from the obvious fiscal interest, was to motivate creators to create. That financial reward would be due them, and that would encourage creation. But it was designed with the term limit so that things that have entered the cultural vernacular would also be available for subsequent creators to play with.
If you have a character in a story sing even a few words of a song — and even a couple of words is enough to get you sued, especially if you make it obvious what they’re singing — that’s a copyright violation. The Happy Birthday lawsuit that recently wrapped up was charging thousands of dollars for the ‘use’ of a song that is so obviously part of our common lexicon that it made people who don’t ‘get’ copyright shake their heads in disbelief. If you do a parody of a known character like Sherlock Holmes or Mickey Mouse, that can also get you sued.
At this point, lawyers shrug and say “so, fight it.”
Lawsuits cost money. LOTS of money. And judges are lawyers. They’re on the side of lawyers. They very rarely look at all favorably on anyone, however well researched or prepared, who appears before them who isn’t a lawyer. That means, in 99.9~% of all suits, you’re paying out of pocket for lawyer(s) to represent you. Plus court fees. Plus other fees and costs to prepare exhibits, witnesses, research, travel expenses, lost time you could’ve been performing other money-producing tasks, and who knows what else.
Companies control the game because they have the deep pockets. The encryption fight that Apple is waging as I type this is one they can only do because they’re Apple, with billions and billions of i-money to spend on it. If Disney files a lawsuit against me or any other creator, we’re fucked. They know it. The courts know it. We all know it. I can’t afford to fuel a fight against a Disney or anyone else with those kinds of resources, and that’s what they’re counting on. If I write something that comes to their attention, I know how exactly how it’ll play out. They’ll send me a letter or an email, maybe a phone call, where someone with a polite sneer in his/her voice will explain how I’ll be financially ruined if I even try to get to court. Not win, just make it into court.
Disney needs to knock it the fuck off. They have a wonderful brand; a brand built, literally, on dreams. Walt had dreams, and spent his life bringing them to life. Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, the studio; they’re dreams made real. They’re supposed to inspire others to dream as well.
Just not anywhere even remotely close to Disney. And they’ll spend and spend and spend until they get their way.
It really sucks.